You've got to hand it to creator Chris Carter: There's no dust gathering on The X-Files as the show begins its eighth season. Remember last season's cliff-hanger, in which Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) was shanghaied into outer space by our ancient foes the aliens? Remember this summer's news that Duchovny would be back for only half of this season's episodes, and that Gillian Anderson's Scully would be teamed with a new partner FBI agent John Doggett played by Robert Patrick, from Terminator 2 and The Sopranos? Well, everybody shows up for the season premiere, even if no character looks to be having a particularly good time. Mulder in alien captivity is trussed to an examining table equipped with six little pincers that pull his cheeks apart (Duchovny deserved his raise just for doing these scenes alone; they must have been even more painful for him than not winning the mil on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire). Scully is busy barfing morning sickness, y'know, from that unexplained intrauterine invasion (it's a wonder Joe Lieberman didn't seize on this as an election-year issue: ''We must protect our children from the sight of a TV idol's out-of-wedlock pregnancy!''). And Doggett well, no one's exactly welcoming him with open arms; certainly not green-gilled, suspicious Scully, or FBI assistant director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), whose eyes are like you'll excuse the expression saucers now that he's become a believer in the conspiracy that hangs over this series like the smog in L.A.
But the thing is, all this tension turns out to be great for the show's pulse, which had been fluttering last season. In too many of season 7's adventures, Duchovny and Anderson looked as if they'd been asked to go investigate who shot J.R. Ewing; their boredom was showing. The Nov. 5 premiere episode, entitled ''Within'' (written, like the next week's companion piece, ''Without,'' by Carter himself), discovers a new force field of energy. Scully may be ill-ish, but Anderson enacts her queasiness as well as the first two episodes' numerous rootin'-tootin' action sequences with much of the sleek gravitas that movie critics are noticing in her performance in the upcoming Edith Wharton X-file The House of Mirth. And now I understand what Carter saw in Robert Patrick; where T2 exploited his stoicism and The Sopranos his middle-aged craziness, X-Files brings forth Patrick's hardboiled alertness. (Tell me if I'm not right: Squint a little and listen closely, and he's a dead ringer for a young Martin Sheen, circa Badlands.)
Both the actor and his role find a smooth entry into this series: As a former New York City police detective, Doggett knows how to launch an investigation with the authority of a lawman who doesn't mind stepping on a few toes, even if the tootsies belong to Scully. It's a nice touch, as Carter and director Kim Manners set it up, that Doggett is quietly freaked by the possibility that all this alien mumbo jumbo complete with violent drop-in visits by a shape-shifting bounty hunter (Brian Thompson) may be on the level. Or as on the level as the seriously off-kilter X-Files ever gets. Scully, having made the slow but steady shift from skeptic to believer herself (''I have seen things I cannot explain,'' she says this week), can use Doggett as a new, contentious but conscientious partner, and the show uses him as a new dramatic foil for the increasingly forceful Scully.
If I've not mentioned Fox Mulder much here, it's because his fleeting scenes are so crucial to plot turns that Carter and company will have me abducted if I reveal them. It's enough to say that his perils have a distinctly hallucinatory, giddily S&M quality to them hint: Marathon Man meets the Marquis de Sade and that much green blood is spilled in trying to reach the muzzled Mulder. What I should tell you is that a crucial role is played by a character we first met in season 5, the now-12-year-old Gibson Praise (Jeff Gulka), a wunderkind who proves to have some alien DNA floating behind his blank face. This makes Gibson prone to visions that leave him spouting vintage Carter-speak, as when he tells our heroes that Mulder ''is somewhere out there.''
So, thank goodness, is this series. Way out there. A-